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Voluntown -- There's an old legend here of a witch named Maud whose ghost haunts the Hell Hollow section of Pachaug Forest.
As the story goes, Maud gets angry when people utter her name near her gravesite, just off Hell Hollow Road near the Sterling line. And you can tell when Maud is mad because the stones at her burial site are strewn about, instead of piled up.
Local lore holds she was a young woman accused of witchcraft hundreds of years ago and hanged. Her solitary grave in the thick woods of Pachaug Forest is cursed, they say. For decades, locals have told ghost stories to one another about Maud and have vandalized her grave.
One story goes that her burial site is so cursed that people who go to it and say her name will also be damned.
A local paranormal investigations group has tried to find out who Maud was and why she is buried in a lone grave. Web sites on Connecticut hauntings mention the Maud witch legend.
But, perhaps, it is the real story behind the myth that is truly haunting.
Her name was Maud Reynolds, and in the late 1800s she lived briefly with her parents, Gilbert and Lucy Reynolds, on the family's farm on Hell Hollow Road.
She died in October of 1890, less than three months shy of her second birthday.
It was one of several tragedies to befall her parents.
The doctor who filed her death certificate in Town Hall stated that Maud died of diphtheria, a leading cause of death in the United States in the 19th century. It swells throat tissues, making it difficult for its victims to breath, eventually leading to heart failure, paralysis and sometimes death. A vaccine has long since eradicated diphtheria in this country.
A Reynolds descendant said the family contested that finding and always believed the baby choked to death on a piece of apple.
Her parents found her dead in her bed on the morning of Oct. 12, 1890, said Pat Brenek, a Reynolds family descendant. They found the apple she had been eating, the marks of her baby teeth still clearly visible in it. Long after, Brenek said, they kept the apple preserved in a bottle of alcohol, so they could see her teeth impressions.
Mary Rose Deveau, a Griswold historian who has researched Maud's death, wonders if both the apple story and the diphtheria diagnosis might be true. It's possible, Deveau said, that Maud had the disease and the swelling in her throat caused her to choke on the apple.
No matter what the case, she was the third child of Lucy and Gilbert Reynolds to die in Hell Hollow, all within a few years of one another.
An older brother died in February of 1888, a year before Maud was born. Earl Reynolds was only 7 when he succumbed to diphtheria.
The other brother, Gilbert Reynolds, also died from diphtheria, although his death certificate is not on file in Town Hall. Brenek, 69, whose grandmother was Maud's older sister, said Gilbert died around the same time as his brother.
The boys are buried in the family cemetery, located in the woods across Hell Hollow Road from Maud's grave. When she was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, said Brenek, her grandmother often took her to visit the cemetery and Maud's grave.
The family plot, however, is now itself buried beneath decaying leaves and forest undergrowth.
Brenek doesn't know why Maud wasn't buried in the family cemetery.
One story locals tell is that Lucy Reynolds, who was a midwife, was so devastated by her baby's death that she refused to bury Maud in the family plot. Instead, she had Maud laid to rest closer to the home, at the top of a small rise near the farmhouse, where she could easily see the cross that marked the baby's grave.
“It makes sense. From a two-story house it would be real easy to see that grave,” said Joseph Tatro. Tatro's father and uncles grew up on nearby Tatro Road and knew the Reynolds. Tatro, 55, also grew up on Tatro Road and still hunts and fishes in the Hell Hollow area.
He grew up hearing the stories about Maud's family. He also heard the witch and ghost stories growing up.
“It's a bunch of bull,” he said.
“It's silly. She was just a baby, and I don't know how all these stories about her being a witch got started.”
Hell Hollow got its name, in part, from another local legend about the ghost of an Indian woman said to have been killed by British soldiers in the area in the 1600s. Her ghost, the story goes, haunts Hell Hollow and her plaintive wailing can be heard there sometimes. Local hunters have long told of hearing strange noises there.
That Maud is buried in a solitary grave in such a desolate spot in the woods is probably also partly the reason for the persistent ghost stories about her, said Deveau.
At the time of her death, however, Hell Hollow, like much of the Pachaug area, was comprised of family farms and rolling fields. There were no forestlands, and Maud's tiny grave was at the edge of a field, near the road. It was a stone's throw from her parents' home.
But the Great Depression devastated the farmers in Hell Hollow and in the rest of the Pachaug area of Voluntown and Griswold. Those who didn't outright abandon their farms sold them to the state, which created Pachaug State Forest.
There is no local record of what became of Lucy and Gilbert Reynolds, though Brenek believes they moved to Rhode Island.
In the decades after the state purchase, the forest that had been cleared by the farmers reclaimed the fields.
Today, Maud's grave rests under a bower of pine trees. Maples, ash and oaks grow in thick stands on either sides of Hell Hollow Road. There is no grave marker, though a jumble of rocks is nearby. Someone has formed circles with several of the rocks. Graffiti of obscenities and odd markings are spray-painted on trees and rocks. On one boulder is the word “Hell.”
All that's left of the family's home, just down the hill, is a barely discernable stone foundation overgrown by grass and trees. Bright fall leaves float in the water at the bottom of a well shaft near the foundation.
During the 1950s and 1960s locals persisted in stealing Maud's gravestone, a 5-foot-tall cement cross, Tatro said.
A relative from New London would always replace it, but eventually gave up, he recalled. At some point, someone placed a sign on her grave warning would-be vandals that they would be cursed. The warning probably helped to boost the witch legend, Tatro said.
Town Hall keeps a copy of a booklet, written by Griswold resident David Trifilo, about the ghosts that supposedly haunt Pachaug Forest. His booklet makes reference to Maud's ghost. Some locals gleefully recount the witch legend to those who come seeking information about Maud and Hell Hollow.
Others, like Tatro and Deveau, disdain the legend and are even saddened by it.
The ghost stories, Deveau said, diminish Maud's humanity and her memory.
“That poor little girl,” Deveau said. “And that's really all she was, just a little girl.”
Trifilo said he wrote his booklet, which convinced one local group to lead a walk into Pachaug last year to discuss the ghost stories, because Pachaug and its history fascinate him.
But Trifilo puts little stock in the ghost legends, though he thinks Pachaug truly is haunted.
“It's not haunted in the more common way most people would think of it,” Trifilo said. “But everywhere you look in Pachaug there are abandoned roads with trees growing up in the middle of them. There are crumbling stone walls where farms once existed and the foundations of long-abandoned houses.
“Everywhere you look you can see the signs of the humanity that was once here.” Article UID=38e298f9-3ffa-4720-ba4d-4530ae35fc78